Aristotle and Plato on Good and Ignorance
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Greek philosopher Aristotle attempts to pinpoint just how one should go about being a good and virtuous person. Several of the ethical concepts mentioned in the Ethics had already been touched upon in previous texts by Aristotle’s teacher, Plato. One idea in particular that appears in both Aristotle’s Ethics and Plato’s Protagoras is that no one does wrong willingly, but only out of ignorance. This idea is known as a Socratic paradox, for it seems to imply that we don’t really have free choice in deciding what actions we take. However, it is important to note that “unwillingly” is not meant literally in this case. Of course the choices we make are the result of free will, even when we choose the wrong thing. What Plato and Aristotle mean is that when we make bad choices out of ignorance we are unwilling in that our ignorance makes us do things we wouldn’t have done if we knew all the consequences. Though Aristotle’s take on the subject differs slightly from Plato’s, the two philosophers agree that it is critical for one to realize that ignorance can hinder good decision-making. However, Aristotle takes the concept a step further, clarifying aspects that may have been confusing in Plato’s account. He clearly shows us how important it is to be aware of the danger that ignorance poses when we are trying to become better people.
The idea that we do not do wrong willingly was introduced in Plato’s Protagoras. In this text, Socrates as the narrator of the story gets into a discussion about what it is to be “good” with Protagoras. Socrates notes that people do “bad” things such as overindulge in food, drink, and sex because these things are pleasurable. “But what is it exactly about these things that makes you say they’re bad for you? Is it the fact that they give you that pleasure at that moment; the fact that each of them is pleasurable? Or is it the fact that, in the long term, they make you ill, or make you poor, or bring about lots of other things like that?” (Protagoras p. 67). Obviously, the reason why people say these things are “bad” is the latter. They bring momentary pleasures, but can have many unpleasant consequences if not approached with caution.
Socrates also observes that while some good things may be painful at first, such as going to the doctor and working out, we do them because of the good results we will gain in the long run (Protagoras p. 68). We call these things “good” because in the end the positive results outweigh the pain of doing them and we call other things “bad” because the pain in the end outweighs the pleasure. Knowing this, the claim a person might make for doing bad things looks ridiculous: “We can’t resist the pleasure, and that’s why we’re not doing what’s best for us; because we certainly know what’s best.” (Protagoras p. 66). If the painful consequences outweigh the pleasure, then why would anyone do bad things at all? The only answer, according to Plato, is that people don’t do what’s best for them because they don’t know what’s best. Socrates says, “when people make mistakes in choosing pleasures and pains—i.e. what’s good for them and bad for them—they make those mistakes through a lack of knowledge.” (Protagoras p. 73). That is the Socratic paradox.
To some, this may seem like a far-fetched claim. Fortunately, Aristotle continues with this concept in the Ethics and shows that there really is merit to the so-called paradox. Aristotle begins by discussing different kinds of involuntary acts. He notes that with some actions done involuntarily through ignorance, a person may be unaffected by the consequences. “Hence, among those who act because of ignorance, the agent who now regrets his action seems to be unwilling, while the agent with no regrets may be called nonwilling, since he is another case.” (Ethics p. 378). Sometimes people make choices out of ignorance that don’t really affect them, but rarely will someone purposefully choose what causes pain and regret, so when ignorance results in such a decision it is clearly unwilling, according to Aristotle.
Next, Aristotle explains that involuntary actions cannot always be blamed on ignorance. “For the cause of involuntary action is not [this] ignorance in the decision, which causes vice; it is not [in other words] ignorance of the universal, since that is a cause for blame.” (Ethics p. 379). If people were to make choices in complete ignorance of what they are doing, then whatever bad results come of it would be their own fault for not being better informed. “Rather, the cause is ignorance of the particulars which the action consists in and is concerned with; for these allow both pity and pardon, since an agent acts involuntarily if he is ignorant of one of these particulars.” (Ethics p. 379). Actions that are truly unwilling because of ignorance are the result of people being ignorant of some particular aspect of the decision they’re making, rather than completely ignorant of the entire situation. Therefore they can be forgiven according to Aristotle. He then identifies the particulars someone might be ignorant of in an decision, such as “(1) who is doing it; (2) what he is doing; (3) about what or to what he is doing it; (4) sometimes also what he is doing with it—with the instrument, for example; (5) for what result—safety, for example; (6) in what way—gently or hard, for example.” (Ethics p. 379).
While people should not be excused from the consequences of their actions if they were totally ignorant of what they were doing, it is easy to understand that sometimes people might not understand fully some aspect of what they are doing, such as what the result will be or whom it will affect. When we don’t realize what the consequences of our actions will be, “by giving someone a drink to save his life we might kill him.” (Ethics p. 379). The killing would be involuntary for we were trying to save a life, but our ignorance of the effect of our actions would result in a death. Aristotle also makes it clear that it is not only bad actions that are involuntary, as it might have seemed in Protagoras. He poses the question “do we do the fine actions voluntarily and the shameful involuntarily?” (Ethics p. 380). Of course, he says, that would be ridiculous (Ethics p. 380). Ignorance can cause both good and bad actions, but in order to prevent the bad ones we must avoid ignorance as much as possible.
There are arguments that can be made against this idea of Plato and Aristotle’s, but these arguments ignore what the philosophers were really saying. Someone arguing against them might use the example of people who smoke cigarettes in spite of the ill effects that smoking is known to cause. However, the people that choose to risk their health for the pleasure of smoking probably don’t count on actually getting cancer, emphysema, or any other smoking-related illness in the future. If they could look into the future and see themselves with lung cancer, they would likely make an effort to quit smoking. Since we can’t see the future, the pains we risk from doing pleasurable yet harmful activities are nothing but potential pains. Many people don’t really think those bad things are going to happen to them, so they are willing to take the risk for the sake of pleasure. Even Aristotle says, “It is sometimes hard…to judge what [goods] should be chosen at the price of what <evils>, and what <evils> should be endured as the price of what [goods].” (Ethics p. 377-8). We cannot know exactly what the future holds, so we must become as well-educated as possible as to the risks we are taking when we participate in potentially painful activities.
Plato’s character Socrates tells us that when we’re trying to decide whether a pleasure is worth a future pain, or vice versa, it’s “just a question of their being bigger or smaller than one another, or of there being more of one and fewer of the other, or of one lot being more painful or more pleasurable, and so on.” (Protagoras p. 71). In order to prevent unpleasant consequences that result from ignorance, “you’ve just got to be a kind of expert at weighing things up; you’ve got to put together all the pleasures, and put together all the pains (placing both kinds, short- and long-term, on the scales) and then say which lot there are more of.” (Protagoras p. 71). In order to live the most pleasurable life possible, we must free ourselves from ignorance and become experts at weighing the possible effects of the decisions we make.
Between the accounts of this Socratic paradox given by Plato’s Protagoras and Aristotle’s Ethics, it seems that it is not really such a paradox after all. Of course, most of the decisions we make are “willing” in the literal sense of the term, but ignorance can hinder us so that we make the wrong decisions and end up with consequences we weren’t planning on. Aristotle and Plato weren’t just making up silly arguments; they were genuinely trying to discover what it means to be a good person and teach it to others. Even today, their advice might help us live the best and most pleasurable lives possible. While many aspects of our lives are out of our control, ignorance is something that can be prevented. We should heed these philosopher’s words and not let ignorance inhibit our ability to make the right choices.